The starfishes, octopuses and squid of scientists' 70,000-mile 19th century journey to the deep sea

By Culture24 Reporter | 19 August 2015

In 1872, chemists, physicists and biologists boarded the HMS Challenger and embarked upon a 70,000 nautical mile journey of global exploration

A photo of a drawing of a large octopus from the HMS Challenger voyage of the 19th century
This is the Octopus Cyanea
The team systematically surveyed the geology, topography, biology and chemistry of the deep sea.

A photo of a starfish collected by Percy Sladen on the HMS Challenger voyage
A starfish from the collection of Percy Sladen, held at the museum in Exeter
They returned four years later with a mass of data and thousands of specimens, many of which were sent to leading scientists across the globe.

A photo of two people carrying a large starfish collected on the 19th century Challenger Expedition
Members of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum meet a starfish collected on the Challenger Expedition, held at the Natural History Museum
The crew and scientists took detailed scientific readings about the sea and the weather with barometers, hydrometers, thermometers and other instruments, as well as dredging or trawling the seabed for specimens.

A photo of various anemones from the HMS Challenger journey
Several species of sea anemone were dredged and trawled on the expedition
Although the Challenger was a small war ship, most of her guns were removed to make way for all the scientists, their equipment and a pair of laboratories.

A photo of a painting of 19th century biologist Percy Sladen, sitting with his dog
Biologist Sladen was the only person the leaders of the expedition could find who would be capable of analysing the starfish
More than 4,000 new species were described and the reports written filled 50 volumes and nearly 30,000 pages.

A photo of a map of the world based upon data drawn from the HMS Challenger voyage
This map was made using data from the Challenger expedition
The impact of this epic journey has been wide: it laid the foundation for the science of oceanography, a space shuttle, a lunar module, and a deep sea research vessel were all named after the expedition and it has even been the inspiration for dolls’ house accessories.

A black and white photo of a scientific laboratory used to examine specimens from the HMS Challenger voyage
Specimens from the trip were examined in this special Natural History Laboratory
140 years after samples from one of the world’s greatest journeys of scientific discovery were dispersed to experts across the globe, Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum is collecting records of the voyage into a single digital database. The information is still an important source of baseline data and will soon be readily available for further research.

A photo of a female scientists examining objects from the HMS Challenger voyage
A glance at specimens held in the collections of Bristol Museum
Many of the specimens and data sets are held by national museums and "reasonably accessible", according to researchers. Some of the findings were shared among smaller museums and research institutions: 300 echinoderms are included in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum’s Sladen collection.

A photo of some cream-coloured sea whelks found during the HMS Challenger voyage
These whelks were found off the coast of Brazil and are stored at National Museum Wales
From starfish to butterflies and bryozoans to whale jaws, the records have examples from a wide range of taxonomic groups.

A photo of some yellow-coloured squid in a jar found during the HMS Challenger voyage
These squid from Argentina are stored at National Museum Wales
While most records come from the animal kingdom, there are plenty of botanical and geological samples and even a few examples of ethnographic material.

A photo of a drawing of a cream-coloured shell from the HMS Challenger voyage of the 19th century
These shells originate from the Azores, Portugal and are stored at National Museum Wales
In April 2014, curators were granted £91,000 by the John Ellerman Regional Museum and Galleries Fund to build an online database of material collected on one of the voyage. The database is due to go live later this year.

A photo of a drawing of sea animals from the HMS Challenger voyage of the 19th century
From the Challenger Actiniaria report, showing genera such as Stephanactis, Amphianthus and Ophiodiscus
More than 15,600 records and 4,000 images of material from the voyage have been collected from museums so far, including Bristol, Glasgow, Harvard and the California Academy of Science in the US.

A photo of a drawing of sea animals from the HMS Challenger voyage of the 19th century
Sea anemones were found attached to gastropod shells
The Natural History Museum is packed with specimens dredged and trawled by HMS Challenger. The museum took in all the types collected from the expedition before passing off some duplicates to many museums around the world, including collections in Sydney, Lisbon, Toronto and Berlin.

A photo of a drawing of sea animals from the HMS Challenger voyage of the 19th century
Cuttlefishes found on the expedition
The National Museums of both Wales and Ireland have been visited by the team, who plan to follow other global links.

A photo of a black and white drawing of men on a boat from the HMS Challenger 19th century voyage
The dredge could also be dragged behind the Challenger’s steam pinnace
The majority of material stored at the National Museum of Wales were 6mm or smaller. The larger ones included octopus and squid.

A photo of two yellow starfishes from the HMS Challenger voyage of the 19th century
Chaetaster longipes
You can find out more of the story by visiting the HMS Challenger project.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.


Three museums to discover natural history in

Natural History Museum, London
The home of 70 million plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, fossils, rocks and minerals - more than can be seen in one visit, but worth a try.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Home to the university’s internationally-significant collections of geological and zoological specimens, as well as substantial archival material in a stunning neo-Gothic building.

Colchester Natural History Museum
Did you know there was an earthquake in Colchester in 1884, or that Mammoths and Hippos used to roam around here? Find out more with hands-on-displays, live animals and a chuchyard nature reserve.
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This is fascinating, thank you for sharing. It holds so much inspiration for my future sea creature illustrations! :)
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